Angela Allen

Charlie Dennard's Musical Gumbo

In Charlie Dennard’s multi-continental musical world, fusion is anything but a dirty word. Then again, when the term is limited to the passé, 1970s-era quasi-mind-bending melding of rock, funk and electronic music, it does translate as a four-letter word to Dennard, though he doesn’t swear too much. The 45-year-old jazz musician/ composer/Cirque du Soleil musical director is as conscious of his polite French roots reaching back centuries into American history (his label is Deneaux Music) as he is of his Southern heritage. Dennard’s southern ingredients include a childhood in Birmingham, Ala., and an adult life, off and on in New Orleans. He studied with jazz pianist Ellis Marsalis (father of brothers Wynton, Branford, et al.) in the late ‘90s at the University of New Orleans, where he earned a master’s degree in music.

Fusion—that word, again— does accurately describe Charlie Dennard’s brand-new CD, From Brazil to New Orleans. Untethered to any particular genre, it’s far more than a crossover collection of tired-out Preservation Hall jazz and overworked Brazilian bossa nova. Dennard’s CD even leaves mid-century bossa nova behind for newer music.

“Brazilian musicians have moved on,” he says. “They even think of bossa as elevator music.” Dennard and a band of Portland jazz all stars and Cirque du Soleil musicians will cook up a gumbo of jazz/Brazilian fusion at Monday night’s CD release party at Portland’s Secret Society. The nine-track CD includes Dennard’s originals and those of rarely played — at least outside South America — Brazilian composers, including Humberto Teixeira, who teamed up with Luiz Gonzaga, king of “baioão,” a style of northeastern Brazilian folk music; Guinga, one of Brazil’s best known guitarist-composers who co-wrote the ballad, “Senhorinha”; and prominent, prolific composers Paulo Cesar Pinheiro and Sergio Santos (“Ganga Zumbi”). Stateside, we don’t get enough of them. And Dennard pays them tribute.

Though hard to pigeonhole, the CD is a varied mash-up of Brazilian music and New Orleans’ brass-heavy bands and second-line drumming. Tunes are further spiced by cello, bansuri flute, tuba, recorder, clarinet, guitar and an Afro-Brazilian vocal. Dennard calls it “a gumbo … putting styles together in one big pot—and stirring it at the same time.”

And does he stir. Flamboyant horn lines blast over a tuba in “Quando o Galo Cantar,” and a cello pairs up dreamily with Dennard’s acoustic piano in the ballad, “Senhorinha.” A clarinet, high-spirited horns and second-line drumming on “Capoeira Mata Um” contrast with a Grant Green-ish guitar on “Valsa Luisiana.” Brazilian crooner Tatiana Parra’s voice resonates with Dennard’s synthesizer, a seven-string acoustic guitar, sax and flute on “Ganga Zumbi.”

Crazy, mixed-up and unfocused? No, intricately composed and thoughtfully arranged. “Charlie knows how to layer music,” said Portland-area jazz pianist Steve Christofferson, who will join Dennard at Monday’s CD release concert. Portland jazz pianist Clay Giberson, an undergraduate classmate of Dennard’s at University of Miami, will join them for a heavily improvised three-way keyboard conversation during the Secret Society gig. Giberson likes Dennard’s music for “its sense of orchestration, and the way he uses different instruments to really create a lush sound and evocative soundscape,” and calls him “a complete musician,” who knows tradition as well as innovation, a multi-talented keyboardist who’s “equally at home behind the piano and the Hammond B3 organ, which really require different techniques and musical approaches.”

Dennard also plays the accordion, though he’s no virtuoso at that — or even at the piano. “There are virtuosos out there, and I’m not one of them. My strength is being well-rounded,” Dennard says, mentioning his admiration for a varied range of American pianists such as Larry Goldings, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Ellis Marsalis. His Brazilian influences include Joao Donato, Cesar Camargo Mariano and Antonio Adolfo, while his choice newer pianists include Andre Mehmari, Fabio Torres and Debora Gurgel. Antonio Carlos Jobim and Hermeto Pascoal “are in a special category,” he says.

Dennard, come to think of it, is a fusion guy himself, merging keyboard versatility, composing gift, technical fluency, and easy-going people skills, not to mention his ability to hold down a regular gig for over a decade. Every night except Mondays, he directs a six-person band, along with two singers, in the two-hour Cirque du Soleil “Totem,” now performing a six-week run in Portland. He has been a musical director for the wildly popular worldwide circus for 12 years, taking a break after a Sao Paulo show to learn more about Brazil and its music.

During that show, Dennard met Mariana Alterio, part of a Brazilian musical family. It was a match made in Brazil—and eventually, in New Orleans. Six years ago, they married. Her father Rafael co-wrote the CD’s first song with Dennard, the catchy “Itape.” Her youngest brother, Pedro Alterio, composed the third song, “Abrindo A Porta” (“Opening the Door”), and Mariana’s parents, Raphael and Rita, wrote “Quando o Galo Cantar” (“When the Rooster Sings”).

“When Mari comes to New Orleans, she feels at home,” he says. “When I’m in Sao Paulo, I’m at home.”

And why not? Parts of Brazil and New Orleans share much in common: good coffee, humidity, red beans and rice, Afro-European cultural fusions and musical gumbos – and now a CD.